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Supporters of local agriculture say reducing the “food miles” traveled by what we eat will retain more nutrients, help the environment, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil and create a less centralized food chain, with less risk of widespread disease or terrorism.

A boom in farmers markets could also put pressure on big retailers to carry local goods, as buyers begin asking for them.

Several supermarket chains have already responded to the public’s interest in local food, with major retailers including Giant Food Stores and Safeway selling locally grown food in some places. Natural-food giant Whole Foods carries locally produced goods, and after widely publicized criticism of the distances traveled by its organic produce, agreed to spend $10 million annually on low-interest loans for local growers.

As things stand now, Mrs. James and the 30 even smaller farmers in her cooperative mostly sell their products from the back of their pickup trucks, a strategy called “tailgate marketing.”

“Right now, even if schools came to us, we couldn’t serve them, because we don’t have storage, and it would just rot in the fields,” she says.

If these proposals go through, supporters say, it will be an important step toward helping small, local farmers inch their way into the mainstream and onto the average American dinner plate.

“If we can get these programs funded properly in the farm bill, you’d see more of them in more communities all across the country,” says Ralph Grossi, president of the preservation group American Farmland Trust. “It generates new hope for farmers who want to produce for local consumers and gives us a reason to preserve the open lands around our cities, so the opportunity to continue to produce exists in the future.”